Self-stirring load-hauler Ford‘s Transit Custom goes auto

8 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineSeptember 7, 2018

For many, Ford‘s Transit has long personified the image of a traditional white van, and no wonder; first launched in 1965, it‘s sold over eight million worldwide. However, in an increasingly fragmented market Ford can‘t sit on its laurels, hence a few recent changes. 

When Ford New Zealand announced the arrival of an auto for the Transit Custom early last year, Transit sat third in its sector, trounced by Toyota and Hyundai. Motor Industry Association figures showed Transit‘s 2016 sales in the Custom‘s weight bracket at 716, compared with Toyota‘s Hiace at 2123 and Hyundai‘s iLoad at 1009; a respectable third, and well ahead of the rest.

But that auto was overdue. Van cabins – and the drive experience – more closely resemble cars as they get easier to drive, and the Kiwi fleet is weighted more heavily to auto transmissions. The fact the Transit was available here in manual transmission only was a bit of a liability. So it was good news last year, when the auto variant finally arrived for sale in the last quarter of 2017. Despite the fact it was only available for three months, model sales rose to 13.6% segment share and 832 for 2017, and it didn‘t take long for Ford to drop the manual version off its listing. Clearly that was a good move. Transit sold 527 in the first six months of 2018 for 18.7% share, and it‘s now segment-second behind Toyota, and ahead of Hyundai. Score, and no wonder the brand has gone all auto for Tourneo Custom too and, later this year, for Transit Cargo.

We figured it was time to give it a try, in short wheelbase Custom format.

Photo: Layout simple, clear, easy to use.

Photo: Desk folds from middle seat: very useful.

This transmission now drives the front wheels. The new 2.0-litre EcoBlue diesel engine claimed to cut fuel use by 13% without compromising on grunt thanks to a low inertia turbo, part of a global engineering trend towards power plants that drink less fuel and emit fewer noxious emissions while still delivering acceptable urge.

The pairing works well; torque is on hand from low down the rev range, the transmission slurs effectively through shifts, the pair feel under-stressed at any legal speed and, though we certainly noticed when the load arrived, seat-of-the pants performance barely alters. Any car driver could hop in and feel right at home, apart from the height of that seat.

Ford passenger car owners will recognise the general dash and instrument layout and the design flavour, while a number of features will be familiar to anyone driving a modern passenger car. Obviously there‘s a reversing camera and park sensors front and rear, plus cruise control, hill launch assist, stability and traction control – and six airbags, two for the front, two side and two head bags: Transit Custom has a 5 star safety rating. Ford SYNC with voice activation and Bluetooth means you can order up and dial calls hands-free – yes, you can also auto download your phonebook. The latest Transit Custom arrivals have upgraded the screen to a larger, 8” model, and as well as voice commands you can swipe or pinch, like you do on a tablet, plus there‘s Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, along with a small price alignment – the Transit range now starts at $54,990, not $51,990 as before.

Otherwise the long list includes the likes of fog lights, heated powered mirrors, variable intermittent wipers, an integrated roof rack which can carry 130kg, air con, a 12V charge point in the dash, the driver stowage bin and the cargo area, and a glovebox which claims to hold hanging A4 files – we had none on hand to try.

Van-specific cabin spec adds rollover mitigation to the clever electronics to keep the Transit Custom stable if you have to swerve to avoid something, and load adaptive control, which calculates your load and adapts the electronic safety systems to suit. Also van-specific, three seats up front in place of a passenger car‘s two, and a fold-down section in the middle seat that forms a desk, and holds two cup holders, and an elastic strap for papers. The spec also refers to storage under a front passenger seat, which we failed to explore further when the van was in our custody…

As for the cargo area, that ‘s truly capacious. Our IRB on its pallet looked a little lost on its own in there. The only restriction we found was the lift-up tailgate, which obstructed forklift access and required fork extensions to get our load on board. If this may be of concern, look at a Transit version with side-opening rear doors.

Photos: Even this SWB Transit Custom has enough cargo space to dwarf our IRB on its pallet. Side-opening doors would make forklift pallet loading a load easier.

That black vinyl floor covering is standard, and aimed at easy cleaning. We found it also eased loading and unloading as even our IRB with its 500kg load of bricks could slide if necessary, though that did mean greater care was needed when tying down via the provided cargo loops to stop it sliding during starting and stopping manoeuvres.

Our test vehicle came standard, but there‘s a long list of available accessories, starting with 16” or 18” alloy wheels, allweather front floor mats, a rear door ladder kit and a tow pack. Naturally, Transit isn‘t perfect. Any solid-sided van includes blind spots, and this Custom is no different. We had no complaints about ride and engine performance, and it‘s obvious this auto is well up to the job of pleasing New Zealand‘s autoloving workers.

Our only real reservation was the cabin is starting to look rather dated, but that ‘s inevitable given the years between any totally fresh van redesign.

Meanwhile this auto, the decent spec and the recent upgrade to the touch screen and entertainment options, should see Transit keep its firm hold on the podium against its vans/ chassis cab competitors in the 2501-3500kg GVM bracket.